Published by : Stuart McLean - 12 January 2023

We’re seeing five key changes to the Rules of Golf for 2023, aimed we must assume towards making the game more enjoyable and fairer.

Golfers can now replace a damaged club and get free relief if a ball is moved by natural forces after being dropped, placed or replaced (as happened to Rickie Fowler on the PGA Tour where a dropped ball at rest then ran back into a water hazard). And a dropped ball can now roll closer to the hole as long as it is within a club length of where it is dropped.

One peculiar rule change though: we no longer have to ensure our correct handicap is included on a competition scorecard. More about that further on.

However, there are other “changes” to the Rules being simultaneously announced by an American body called the Golf Handicap Association which are genuinely confusing golfers worldwide because their website looks so officially plausible. And the website states the GHA “is in charge of maintaining the core rules of golf.”

Many golfers have been reacting joyously to news that the 2023 changes will include: A free drop from divots on fairways; placing your ball in bunkers if you’re in a footprint that hasn’t been raked; using alignment sticks on the course; and the COR limit on drivers being increased from .830 to .930 to gain extra distance through the spring-like effect.

It’s not fake news if you’re American and a member of GHA, because this is all seemingly permissible for the thousands who obtain handicaps from GHA.

Here in South Africa our golf clubs have rigorously applied the Rules set by the Royal & Ancient, and we abide by them, yet there’s long been a sub-culture of golfers in the United States who are happy to play by a different set of rules. They don’t entirely respect the honour system that is a cornerstone of the game.

This, after all, is a country where the mulligan is commonplace, the self-correcting Polara ball was invented, and you can purchase illegal equipment. When COR restrictions were first imposed by the USGA on titanium drivers in 1998, Callaway developed a driver, the ERC, that didn’t conform to the .830 limit.

The GHA, which believes golfers are unhappy with the current rules, have introduced some silly changes, such as allowing a maximum of 18 clubs instead of 14 (too much choice), placing in a bunker (no one would then bother to rake bunkers), alignment sticks on the course (surely that would slow down play), and allowing giant 600cc heads on drivers. Yet others are sensible for the club golfer to which they are aimed.

Dropping from divots for instance has been advocated on the pro tours. The GHA allow free relief from rocks and roots, but only if you can advance the ball. This would be helpful in avoiding injuries. Rangefinders that calculate elevation, slope and wind speed are allowed together with informational devices, on the basis that pro golfers have access to this information from their caddies. And the GHA say golfers don’t have to take a drop from knee height – they can drop the ball between knee and shoulder height.

Another rule the GHA have right is that golfers on the course can only listen to music on headphones so as not to distract others. There is nothing in the Rules of Golf to prevent golfers having speakers on their golf carts and playing music, “as long as consideration is shown to others.” That’s open to interpretation. We do know plenty of golfers who are not the most considerate of people.


As for the “real” Rules of Golf, I was dismayed by the decision to eliminate the penalty for a player failing to write down their handicap on the scorecard, or entering the wrong handicap. How does it help anyone but the absent-minded, the lazy golfers who can’t be bothered checking their handicap index before a round, and those who profit from others not spotting their errors? Since when was it a hardship to enter your correct handicap on a scorecard?

The R&A and USGA are clearly trying to eliminate the time-honoured practice of golfers using paper scorecards, and wish to force them into scoring on hand-held devices.

However, in SA, with all our competitions and pot-hunters, where scorecards remain popular, this presents a potential nightmare for golf club staff checking scorecards and who are already dealing with Course and Playing Handicaps on top of the handicap index.

What if golfers get in the habit of not revealing their handicaps on the scorecard? Previously they would be disqualified. Now it simply causes an inconvenience, and will delay the scoring process at clubs where members are waiting for prizegiving. And how can anyone accurately mark a scorecard with Stableford points if handicaps are not written down?

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